Myths and magic: Brand New Ancients
Roger Cox discovers Brand New Ancients, a Fringe show of epic poetry inspired by classical mythology, but very much about everyman
FOR flyerers on the Royal Mile this week, Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients is going to be a mighty tough sell. Not because it isn’t a great show – it’s already wrung various London critics dry of superlatives following a run at the Battersea Arts Centre – but because it’s hard to describe it in a way that won’t make your typical Fringe punter suddenly discover something deeply fascinating about the cobbles at his or her feet.
“Afternoon sir, fancy a bit of contemporary epic poetry?” is rarely going to prove a successful opening gambit when you’re competing with jugglers, comedians and gangs of teenagers dressed as zombies.
Adding that the show is inspired by classical mythology probably won’t help shift many tickets either. Even in Edinburgh in August, expressions like “classical mythology” and “epic poetry” still have the power to alienate people who feel that such things are not for them – a shame, really, because it’s exactly these barriers of perceived academic exclusivity that Brand New Ancients seeks to overcome.
Set in Tempest’s native south-east London and delivered in a pithy, gritty style that both echoes and transcends her rap-battle roots, the 45-page poem concerns two working-class couples living next door to each other and the intertwined fates of their respective offspring, Clive and Tommy.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about any of the dramatis personae and in a way that’s the whole point: Tempest wants to show that everyday lives can be just as epic as anything in Greek or Roman mythology and that ordinary people can be heroes too; even gods. As she puts it in Brand New Ancients’ memorable preamble: “the gods are at the doctor’s/ they need a little something for the stress/ the gods are in the toilets having unprotected sex/ the gods are in the supermarket/ the gods are walking home,/ the gods can’t stop checking Facebook on their phones.”
Tempest fell in love with myths at an early age – she remembers reading Aesop’s fables at primary school and sitting in assembly listening to tales of Anansi the Spider Man from West African and Caribbean folklore.
“I’ve always been fascinated by old stories,” she says, “just because of how much of everyday life I find in them. I find it quite comforting, even now, to read a story that’s got its origins in a world I wouldn’t recognise but to find people I do recognise, and morals that still seem to apply.”
Brand New Ancients always has half an eye on the classical world – Tempest says she can feel the connection between the ancient myths and her own work gets stronger every time she performs it.
However, there’s no sense that Clive, Tommy or anyone else in the story is supposed to correspond directly to characters from specific myths, and at no point do you need a classics degree to be able to understand what’s going on.
“One thing I’ve found difficult in poetry that deals with mythological references is that sometimes if you don’t know the classical texts to which they refer you feel like you’re missing out on something,” she says. “So although I reference Pandora and Medea and the Minotaur, they’re more widely known figures from myth, and hopefully if you don’t know who they are you don’t really miss anything – you don’t sit there feeling a bit stupid … which I sometimes do when I read really great poems when they make these references. It’s a horrible feeling – so yeah, I didn’t want anyone to feel left out.”
Now 26, Tempest started getting involved in rap battles when she was just 16 and quickly built a reputation as a performance poet, supporting the likes of John Cooper Clark and Scroobius Pip, who has described her as “annoyingly good”.
In 2011 she was commissioned to write her first play, Wasted, for Paines Plough, and then Battersea Arts Centre gave her the opportunity to develop Brand New Ancients at their experimental Scratch nights, in which artists get to try out ideas in front of a live audience. The piece was performed as a work-in-progress at Edinburgh’s Summerhall last August and then had a three-week run at BAC in the autumn. By this stage, it had a full musical score composed by Nell Catchpole, featuring tuba, cello, violin, drums and electronics. Like the poem itself, Tempest says the
soundtrack is a fusion of the classical and the contemporary.
“Nell’s got such a clear ear, so there are these beautiful soaring string melodies, but they’re not wafty, they’re just really clean and clear – godly, almost. And then Kwake Bass – he’s the drummer, we used to make music together when we were 14 years old, he’s my oldest and closest friend – is coming from more of a hip-hop angle, so he plays these big, chunky drum and electronic lines and there’s this clear string line over the top. It’s a really nice meeting of worlds.”
In March, Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, an award for “excellence and innovation” set up by Carol Ann Duffy, and at the end of this month it will be published by Picador. Tempest’s editor there is acclaimed Scottish poet Don Paterson, who head-hunted her after hearing her perform in London, and the pair evidently have a great rapport – Tempest even mentions how well they get on in her press releases.
“I’ve never worked with an editor before,” she says. “I’ve never had anybody showing me that kind of patience – to sit with me and show me that they believe enough in the potential of a piece that they want to help me make it everything it could be. “He [Paterson] teaches at St Andrews and he’s poetry editor at Picador and he’s, like, you know, a big deal, so when I first met him I was a bit scared. But he’s just a cool guy – there’s nothing pretentious about him. He really does care about poetry and I found his company really inspiring and I’m hopeful that I can make some really good work so that he can be like ‘that’s good’, you know? ‘You did it’.”
Tempest says she’s “nowhere near” completing her new collection, and as a result she’s reluctant to say too much about it. She will say, however, that “another thing Don helped me see was the potential of the page – not just the scary limitations, but what a page can do for a poem that a stage can’t”. And are any mythological characters likely to crop up in the new book? “Funny you should say that,” she chuckles. “Yeah … I’m on a bit of a journey with the myths –hopefully a lifelong journey – I’ve got a lot to learn from them. So yeah, I’m sure there will be a few familiar – or, not so familiar faces.”
MORE INFO: Brand New Ancients is at the Traverse, various times